Fossilised beetle poo sheds light on prehistoric pollinator diets


Researchers in China and the UK have used a beetle fossilised in amber to learn more about prehistoric pollinator-flower systems.

A new study claims that some ancient pollinators didn’t just transport pollen, but fed on it too. Researchers at the University of Bristol and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS) have unearthed some new using a prehistoric pollinator fossil.

Pollinators are some of the most important organisms on Earth. They carry pollen from one flowering plant to another, giving rise to more than 180,000 plant species and more than 1,200 crops.

It’s believed that pollinators evolved very shortly after the first flowers during the Cretaceous period, which took place between 145m and 65m years ago. However, the exact link between flowering plants and pollinators during this time remains somewhat of a mystery. This is largely due to the limited fossil evidence of Cretaceous pollinators.

Using an amber fossil of a beetle from this period, they found that its faecal matter was made up entirely of pollen. The researchers named this new fossil Pelretes vivificus and published their findings in Nature Plants.

Pelretes vivificus, a prehistoric pollinator

Pelretes vivificus, a flower beetle, lived in the Burmese amber rainforest around 98m years ago. Its closest relatives alive today can be found in Australia, where they visit a diverse range of flowers and feed on their pollen.

One of the palaeontologists involved in the research, Prof Chenyang Cai, said that the Pelretes vivificus is associated with clusters of pollen grains. Its hairy abdomen and other anatomical features are adaptations associated with pollination.

Top-down view of the prehistoric pollinator flower beetle used in this study.

Image: Chenyang Cai, Yanzhe Fu and Yitong Su, Lingzi Zhou

“The pollen associated with the beetle can be assigned to the fossil genus Tricolpopollenites. This group is attributed to the eudicots, a living group of angiosperms that includes the orders Malpighiales and Ericales,” said Dr Liqin Li, fossil pollen specialist from NIGPAS.

According to Li, this suggests that pollinators interacted with early flowering plants soon after they initially diversified and by the mid-Cretaceous, were visiting a diverse range of groups.

Erik Tihelka, entomologist and palaeontologist at University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, added: “The fossil faecal pellets are completely composed of pollen, the same type that is found in clusters surrounding the beetle and attached to its body.

“We thus know that Pelretes visited angiosperms to feed on their pollen. This finding provides a direct link between early flowering plants in the Cretaceous and their insect visitors; it shows that these insect fossils were not just incidentally co-preserved with pollen, but that there was a genuine biological association between the two.”


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